The New Orleans Pelicans face a familiar opponent Thursday night, the Utah Jazz. A unique quirk of the COVID-19 impacted schedule this year, the Pels stayed in Salt Lake City for one more go at one of the best teams in the NBA. With Tuesday’s matchup fresh in their minds, here’s to hoping Stan Van Gundy and company can find some answers.
Biggest issue for this team? Defense. It’s bad.
New Orleans ranks 29th (of 30) in defensive rating since the calendar flipped to 2021. For all the focus on the Pelicans’ offense (14th in the NBA over the same span), it is the defense that continues to be the problem. The Pelicans are allowing 16.9 made 3-pointers by opponents per game in 2021. To put that in perspective, the worst team in that regard last season, the Milwaukee Bucks, allowed 14.0 made 3-pointers per game. A big reason why, the Pelicans are allowing 25.4 wide-open 3-point attempts per game in 2021 (also worst in the league). Milwaukee, again, was the worst over the 2019-20 season, and allowed 20.9 wide-open threes a game.
Some of these numbers on defense are instructive. Milwaukee also allowed the fewest shot attempts within 5 feet of the basket last year at 26.6 a game. New Orleans is doing even better, allowing just 23.9 shots within 5 feet of the basket. You can see the rough outline of what Stan Van Gundy is trying to accomplish, emulating the scheme of the best defense in the league the last two seasons is a sensible goal.
In the broadest possible strokes, the Pelicans are executing Van Gundy’s vision. New Orleans needs to hammer down on three primary areas.
- Stop fouling so much. The most frustrating of these are the number of 3-point shooters that are being fouled. Zion Williamson is the chief culprit on the roster, regularly picking up these fouls not because of a solid or aggressive contest but a slow close out that takes away the landing space of the shoot unnecessarily. Clean that up.
- Don’t over help. Utah, as Antonio Daniels mentioned repeatedly during Tuesday’s broadcast, does not drive to score. They drive to pass. And yet, far too many defenders sag to help on a drive that is contained and lose track of their assignment. The team will improve defensively once they start to trust their teammates instead of rushing to their aid.
- Close out. There is a lag for Pelican defends when an opponent is kicking the ball out. Rather than immediately getting back to their assignment on the perimeter, a number of Pelicans hang for a half beat longer tagging a role man when the ball is already in the air being passed. There are so many half beats of delayed reaction on the Pelicans defensive end that turns what should be a clean closeout and forcing another drive-pass decision into wide-open threes.
There is no better opponent to work on these concepts than the Utah Jazz, who will test the Pelicans ability to remain true to their defensive principles every single trip. Now, onto my keys for Thursday night’s game that don’t involve defense.
Brandon Ingram catching in motion
The Pelicans run more “stuff” in the first quarter, and as the game goes on they rely more and more on simple isolation and PnR action for Brandon Ingram. It’s a taxing way to play. New Orleans needs to run more “stuff” even as the game goes on. No one will benefit more than Ingram. Let’s hope for more catches for Ingram coming off screens toward the center of the court and less of him backing it out 35 feet from the basket and calling for a Steven Adams ball screen.
Zion Williamson operating at the top
Zion can get anywhere he wants to go if he starts with the ball at the top of the key. He’s too strong for anyone quick enough to guard him, and too quick for anyone... wait. There isn’t a soul strong enough to guard Zion. It also makes it more difficult for opponents to disguise where a double is coming from. As we saw on Tuesday, Zion is not intimidated by Rudy Gobert’s presence at the rim. Let Zion operate with the ball in his hands more, if he isn’t shooting layups at the hoop he’s improved greatly at kicking out to his teammates.
Lonzo Ball make shots
He’s shooting 3-22 behind the arc in his last three games, and a paltry 28.2% on the season, worst among the non-big men in the rotation. Lonzo is going to get open 3-pointers. He’s attempted 49 catch-and-shoot threes this season, good for second on the team despite missing three games. He’s shooting 22.4% on them this year. He shot 38.6% on them last year. Lonzo Ball has been tremendous on defense this season and if he can find a rhythm behind the arc it will do a world of difference for this offense — and his potential future with the franchise.
What: Pelicans @ Utah
When: 9:00PM Central
How: TNT, Fox Sports New Orleans